Specialised vs Generalised

What is better – specialisation or general skills?

As a new librarian,this is a question I have recently been asking myself.

The benefits of specialisation, say as a law librarian or children’s librarian, are quite clear. You can become an expert in that field. You can build on your knowledge over many years, becoming very effective and efficient in your work, and introduce new ideas as you gain an in-depth understanding of the area. You could even become a world-renowned authority (with a big pay cheque!). If you are especially passionate about one area of librarianship, specialisation may allow you to pursue your passion with vigour.

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However, there are also disadvantages that come with specialisation. Perhaps the skills you acquire, which are very focused on one area, become obsolete or replaced by new technologies. Specialisation can be very limiting. When looking for new roles you may only be able to seek opportunity in one area, as you become ‘pigeonholed’ as only being capable of doing that particular work. You are not able to broaden your horizons and experience a variety of types of work. If you have interests that are across more than one area of librarianship, how do you fulfil these and avoid monotony?

Generalised knowledge and transferable skills seem enticing to acquire. You then have broader opportunities in looking for work and can vary your interests and what you learn. You can also leverage knowledge from different spheres to utilise in a new way. But what about being ‘a jack of all trades and a master of none’? Is there a risk that by not specialising, you will always lose out on that new job by someone with more specific knowledge in that area of work? How can you prove that your transferable skills will be enough?

It seems there are no easy answers to these questions unfortunately. From reading online, the consensus seems to be – aim for balance and what suits you best. Always push yourself outside of your comfort zone no matter which path you choose. Other writers speak of the ‘generalising specialist’:

“As the best of both worlds, a generalizing specialist is a jack-of-all-trades and master of a few. They beat out generalists for their deeper breadth of knowledge, and beat out specialists for having more range and flexibility, and a better working knowledge of how it all fits together.” (Nora Dunn, 2009)

This to me seems almost too ideal to be realistically achievable, but is definitely the type of worker I would like to become!

What are your experiences? Are you a generalist or a specialist, or a generalised specialist? Did you start in one specialisation and move to another? Was this transition a difficult one?

Please share in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook using #interlibnet.

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

Posted in General and tagged , .

4 Comments

  1. Hi,
    I would say it will depend where you’re working at. Specialized library, say law school library or a public library, for children?

  2. Yes, it is a complex matter. According to each person and according to how the person is discovering motivations in their professional practice.
    In my case, I am “general” and at the same time “specialized”: my 30 years of professional practice have been in scientific and technological information services (research). And I’m still fascinated at first!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michelle!

  3. I am a generalist, although I’d have to say a generalist in academic libraries as I’ve not crossed into another sector (which would make me a true generalist I guess!), and I really like being a generalist. I don’t think I have the patience to learn to do the ‘one thing’ well enough to be called a specialist. I’ve had a variety of roles at 3 different employers over 6 years. Now that I’m a ‘manager’ I’m even more generalist in library terms – but I’m starting to see that of course, management is its own specialisation. Learning to let go of wanting to know how to do it myself has been a challenge as a new manager – generalist training has been good for this though!

  4. Thanks Michelle – I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently.

    I started off as a specialist health librarian working at a hospital, and I really enjoyed the specific skills, quirks, and clients. In 2016 I got a research librarian position at La Trobe University liaising mostly with health science researchers. So now I find myself in a “generalised specialist” role where I use particular health librarian skillsets like expert searching to support systematic reviews, but I also have the whole gamut of general academic research librarian skills to learn and stay up to date with (academic publishing, research impact, repositories, research data management, etc).

    My feeling is that as early-ish career librarians it’s better to lean slightly towards the generalist end of the spectrum, while deepening our knowledge in specialist areas where we can.

    I presented a lightning talk on this “identity crisis” and specialisation vs generalism at a Health Libraries Inc conference recently, if anyone wants to see my (very brief) slides
    http://www.slideshare.net/StevenPChang/transitioning-from-health-to-academic-librarianship

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